In an extraordinary sequence of events beginning in the bowels of the internet, reports have emerged claiming Victorian Police Commissioner Simon Overland has lent his name to unsourced rumours claiming that the CFMEU has hired bikie gangs as security on Melbourne’s Westgate Bridge construction site.
In response to a question by veteran business journalist Robert Gottliebsen at the Melbourne Press Club yesterday afternoon, Overland appeared to back claims of bikie involvement on the picket line, following up his comments with a “quip” that the dispute was essentially “between former and current union members”.
The union is currently involved in a bitter dispute with contractor John Holland over a wages agreement on the site, with the notoriously combative firm bussing in non-union workers from around the country while the dispute is mediated in the Industrial Relations Commission.
Overland’s comments were promptly reported last night by Gottliebsen on Business Spectator, which had been inspired to delve into the dispute after the bikies-for-hire claims surfaced in a previous Business Spectator opinion piece written by Independent Contractors of Australia IR warrior Ken Phillips.
The key par is here:
I asked him this question: “How many police have been diverted to the Westgate Bridge inter-union dispute. Are you concerned that one group of unions has hired bikie gangs to intimidate rival union members?”
In his reply Overland agreed that the police had allocated significant resources to the Westgate dispute and he confirmed that bikie groups had been used by some of the unions and he was examining that. He said that the dispute was now being resolved through negotiations and that no significant amount of police resources was currently required.
After lunch I challenged him about this statement and he grinned as he admitted that he had been had been joking and that my description of the event — which was really Ken Phillips’ description – was correct.
Crikey contacted Phillips, who confirmed that the source of his story were internet rumours, but that these were clearly labeled as such in his piece. The claims appear to have gone from the internet, via Phillips and Gottliebsen, right to the top of the Victorian Police force.
The bizarre sequence of events is worth revising. On 15 April, the unsourced claims appeared on the internet.
The next day, The Australian reported on a tense stand off between 200 police on horseback and protestors on the Westgate site as John Holland attempted to bus in non-union labour.
Then, yesterday Phillips’ piece appeared on Business Spectator at 7.29am. The Press Club speech proceeded yesterday afternoon, attended by Gottliebsen, with Overland delivering his comments. At 5.57pm the Gottliebsen story appeared on Business Spectator, quoting Overland and referencing Phillips.
But could Gottliebsen have read too much into Overland’s comments? According to the official Press Club transcript provided to Crikey by the Victoria Police media unit, Overland said, in response to Gottliebsen: “We are concerned about these issues and we are dealing with them. However, Victoria Police is not aware of any widespread issues regarding unions using members of motorcycle groups as hired security for picket lines. The presence of members of these groups at picket lines is not an offence in itself and they may in fact be members of the union involved.”
A police spokesperson denied Overland had said the CFMEU had hired bikies and had instead been making a general observation about their presence.
Interestingly, media reports of Overland’s comments today declined to include the bikie claims, despite calls made by journalists from The Australian to Victoria Police late last night.
Business Spectator is standing by Gottliebsen’s reported sequence of events. But the CFMEU is livid regardless, seeking a retraction from the usually controversy-free police commissioner.
Victorian CFMEU secretary Bill Oliver said the union was “seeking a full retraction of the baseless allegations made against them yesterday by the new Victorian Police Commissioner, Simon Overland.”
“These claims are both unfounded and untrue. We are outraged that the Commissioner is relaying these vicious rumors as truth, to justify what has been a completely unwarranted police presence at the Westgate protest.”
“This is a community picket, that is not being run by the Unions. We most certainly have not paid biker gangs to be present at the protest, and I don’t believe that they would have shown any interest in being there,” Mr Oliver added.
On Sunday, the CFMEU will hold a barbeque for the sacked West Gate workers in Melbourne’s Yarraville Gardens. The presence of either Gottliebsen, Phillips or Overland could not be confirmed before deadline.